Touring India By Rail and River

written by | Posted on May 2nd, 2012

This article originally appeared in the 2012 India Travel Planner. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel guide, visit the digital edition.

In an exotic country like India, getting from place to place can be as memorable as the country itself. Certainly, you can fly to and from most major destinations, but for some of the more far-flung destinations, it’s even difficult to utilize private air charters, although tour operators such as Greaves do so regularly.

But for a truly unforgettable travel experience, there’s nothing like the classic luxury trains of India—Maharajas’ Express, Palace On Wheels, The Golden Chariot and Deccan Odyssey—all of which can be booked through the major custom packaging tour operators such as Greaves, Swain Tours, Tauck and Travcoa and most of which can go just about anywhere in India.

Maharajas’ Express

Greaves, in fact, has a series of luxury train programs beginning with the newly built Maharajas’ Express, a mix of Indian royal traditions combined with the finest features and amenities, offering breathtaking views from the presidential suite, jr. suites and deluxe cabin windows. There are two dining cars, a comfortable lounge and bar, personal butler service and, of course, deliciously exotic cuisine. The train offers itineraries through Rajasthan, central and Eastern India and wildlife parks.

The Darjeeling Mail train tour is a 15-day itinerary connecting India’s west and east coasts beginning in Mumbai and skirting across Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, then traveling to the holy city of Varanasi and the hill station of Darjeeling, ending in the Victorian city of Kolkata.

Madras Mail, meanwhile, is a 15-day rail tour exploring southern India beginning in Mumbai, down to the beach town of Goa, on to Kerala and the lush backwaters, heading east through the temple-rich state of Tamil Nadu, and arriving at the east coast towns of Puducherry and Chennai before traveling north to Delhi. These two “Mail” tours are scheduled to leave Mumbai weekly on Wednesday evenings from September to April.

Palace on Wheels

Palace on Wheels allows clients to tour Rajasthan as the Maharajas did—by private train—but the “new maharajas” will enjoy full air-conditioning, a new easy-riding broad gauge track, and private bathrooms with showers. The carriages retain their traditional standards of service, opulent ambiance and renowned comfort. It’s the quintessential deluxe train journey spending seven nights meandering through the royal state of Rajasthan from Delhi to the city of Jaipur. Next stop, Sawai Madhopur and a wildlife safari to spot tigers in Ranthambore National Park, before continuing on to the mighty Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur, the legendary Chittaurgarh Fort and of course, the shimmering Lake Palace off the shores of the city of Udaipur. Finally, the last destination is the Taj Mahal.

The Golden Chariot

Then there’s The Golden Chariot, the latest addition to Greaves Tours’ train portfolio that takes you on a new route to historical Indian sites, palaces, tropical jungle and the golden beaches of Goa. This luxury train has 44 air-conditioned en-suite cabins all equipped with WiFi, LCD TV, DVD and satellite and beautifully furnished with carved ceilings and plush furnishings. Two restaurants serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes and there’s the Lounge Bar, modeled after the Mysore Palace, plus a fully equipped gym and the Ayurveda center with spa. The 7-night train tour begins in Bangalore, the capital city of Karnataka, heading to the royal city of Mysore with its regal palaces, then winding its way to Kabini National Park for a tiger safari. The journey continues past temples and towns before arriving at Hampi, once the seat of the Vijayanagara Empire. Here, they’ll see the majestic ruins of beautiful temples, palaces, remains of aquatic structures and the ancient market streets, royal pavilions, bastions and royal platforms. Then travel to the picturesque red sandstone cliffs of Badami and the temples of Aihole before arriving at the final destination of Goa.

Deccan Odyssey

The Deccan Odyssey is comprised of 10 carriages, each with four themed cabins. There are lounge carriages, a dining carriage, conference carriage, bar, massage center, steam bath, library, laundry and maid service. The traditional 8-day tour, departing Wednesdays from October through March, ventures through parts of the Deccan Plateau from Mumbai to Goa and then back to Pune and Aurangabad before returning to Mumbai. Each April and September, the Deccan Odyssey explores the north and south of India. Call Greaves India for pricing on all of these rail tours.

Houseboat Tours

River cruising in India is a much more intimate affair than you find in Europe or Asia with the majority of the cruising here in smaller houseboats in the southern India state of Kerala. Oberoi Resorts & Hotels’ Motor Vessel Vrinda in Kerala is one of the larger and most luxurious houseboats in the region, with eight luxury cabins, exquisite dining and a 4-day, laid-back itinerary that sets sail along the main waterway on Vembanad Lake and enters the Alleppey canal, returning to Vembanad Lake in time to watch the sunset and later, enjoy a performance of the highly ritualized Kathakali dance, which tells stories from the ancient Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabarata.

The next morning, the boat heads down the waterways of the Pamba River through the Alleppey canal, sailing through scenic backwaters or “water highways” where guests observe the local life where farming is done below sea level. Then, they transfer to a traditional rice boat to navigate through the narrower sections of the backwaters including a visit to the half-statue of Lord Buddha at Karumadi and a traditional Kerala tharavad (family residence). Later, guests return to Motor Vessel Vrinda for lunch as the boat passes through picturesque stretches of the backwaters on the way back to Alleppey, known as the “Venice of the East.”

On the last day, guests board the smaller rice boats once again to visit St. Mary’s Church, established by St. Thomas in 1721, and Sree Bhagavathy Kshetram, a 100-year-old Hindu temple to the Mother Goddess at Nedumudy. Guests also explore the Chambakulam snake boat yard, which displays the traditional long snake boats used in races, followed by an afternoon backwater cruise before docking at Vembanad Lake. That night, guests can enjoy a “Mohiniattam” recital, a classical dance form distinctive to Kerala, also called the “Dance of the Enchantress,” in which dancers, attired in beautiful traditional costumes, perform with slow, graceful movements.

Contact Information

Greaves India: (800) 318-7801; greavesindia.com

Oberoi Hotels & Resorts: (212) 223-8800; oberoihotels.com